In the City of Shy Hunters
by Tom Spanbauer
We are so compressed here, so pressured, that carbon is all that’s left of the human spirit. Charcoal is what’s left that still burns after the fire has passed through. All the extra shit is gone. What’s left is what burns.
New York is America’s charcoal heart. New York burns out all the extra stuff in your life. You have to be able to state what you want and why you want it as precisely and concisely as possible. There’s no time for anything else. Life is an art and art is a game, Fiona said (301).
Imagine your closest friends, family and lovers. Imagine the people who mean the most to you in the entire world. Think of all the good times that you have had together: all the bars, parties, and close times. Can you remember the times you lost your faith or lover and they were there for you? Go ahead and reminisce, I•ll wait. Now, imagine them dying very slowly. Imagine the fear that coils up in the bottom of your stomach as you watch them waste away. Imagine the pain, dread and sheer terror as they lose weight and their skin and intestines are devoured by a host of parasitic illnesses. Can you even imagine the senseless rage you would feel as you watch them slowly shit themselves to death?
In the City of Shy Hunters is Tom Spanbauer’s third novel, and in it, he chronicles the coming-of-age story of a young man in the ’80s as he comes to term with himself, his sexuality, and gradually, the loss of most of his friends to the raging AIDS epidemic. However, this is not a period piece or a work of queer fiction, and I hope it doesn’t get relegated to the ghetto we assign works that do not fit nicely into our preconceptions of art. This is an epic. This is inspired. This is a novel to reckon with.
The story follows the narrator, Will, as he learns to navigate the streets of New York and survive. Will, a boy who has grown up in Wyoming, comes to New York primarily because he’s afraid. He comes to New York to find his lover and blood brother. Will places himself in a position of vulnerability and weakness out of both love and fear. From traveling to New York and securing an apartment, to looking for employment, Will places himself in a position very few of us will ever attempt: an utter and total dislocation. Placing himself in this position, Will encounters a group of people who will come to play a significant role in his life, for better or worse.
There is True Shot and Ruby Prestigiacomo, who give Will a ride into the town. True Shot, the half Indian who plays an important role in Will’s life, and Ruby, who christens Will with his new name: Will of Heaven. Ruby, who when we meet him, is already dying.
There is Fiona and Harry. Although at the time, Fiona is known as Susan Strong, still uncertain as to what her true identity will be. Fiona becomes Will’s mentor in the catty and backbiting world of the Café Bistro, where he begins working as a waiter. Harry, Fiona, and Will comprise one-half of the wait staff, and they remain embattled against the other half of the wait staff. The beautiful people, so elegant and perfect, they place themselves at odds with and find solidarity with one another.
It is while waiting on a table that Will first encounters Rose, a 6’2″ black performance artist who he falls in love with. Later, while watching a performance piece of art by Fiona and Harry, Will finds himself seated next to Rose. The encounter that ensues reveals much of the thought and ideas that underpin this novel.
The Greeks, Rose said, Believed the hero is allowed to struggle against the superior power of destiny. The lucid compulsion to act, Rose said, To act polemically, Rose said, Determines the substance of the self.
Polem-what? I said.
Polemically, Rose said.
By resisting the gods, Rose said, The hero substantiates himself.
Rose turned his crotch around and there was his butt. He wasn’t wearing black leather pants. He was wearing black leather chaps, and his bare black butt was staring at me in the face. Wounded by the aroma of love. Definitely not Polo.
Rose kept talking as he walked away. It’s to ourselves, Rose said, That we are strangers. La lutte, Rose said • Rose raised his fist • The struggle, Rose said, Reveals to us who we are. The hindrance to our task is our task (114).
Throughout the rest of the novel, Spanbauer explores this theme through the development of the characters that comprise the heart of this novel. Susan Strong’s — nee Fiona’s — resolve to reinvent herself and transform her pain through art is a crucial element. There is also the need for Rose to transform the pain and suffering of advanced HIV into a noble act. This act defies the need to go quietly into that gentle night that the successive Reagan and Bush administrations had warranted with their lack of funding and research into HIV/AIDS.
The ultimate message that is delivered in this novel is that our identities are never so simple as we imagine. Our fates are both ours to choose and ours to battle for and win. Lastly, the solace of relationships and friendships remain the transformative elements that provide the sanctity of life. Outsiders all, together around the central character of Will, these individuals find their life transformed and ultimately redeemed by the power of love. A power made all the more strong by the outside forces of society, sexual politics, and the AIDS epidemic itself, pressing in upon them seeking to rob them of even their self respect. This figure is driven home by Rose’s selection of the play Antigone as one of his last performance pieces.
Antigone, compelled by the fates to anoint her dead brother outside the walls of Thebes willingly sacrifices her life to obey the commands of the gods and fate. She wills her life, her destiny to be inextricably tied to the decrees of fate and rules that no man may intercede in the decisions the gods have ordained. Likewise, Rose’s strident tone indicates he will never roll over for the white, capitalist patriarchy or suffer the easy way out of death. As Rose states:
You’ve got to liberate yourself from your concept of God, Rose said.
Rose’s face in his hands, the candlelight on Rose’s shaved head.
The God who gave me this disease is the God of Taken as Given, Rose said: Ronald Reagan, and Nancy, Margaret Thatcher, George Bush, the Pentagon, the CIA, the FBI, Oliver North, Bernhard Goetz, Ed Koch, and Cardinal O’Henry, the whole fucking hierarchical gaggle of White Paranoid Patriarchs.
AIDS is the shadow of Christianity, Rose said.
He sat up. His right eye was almost closed, his left eye one hard ebony stone rolled smooth.
I am the hero, Rose said. And I am queer, and I am here to restore natural order. And believe me, Rose said, the jig is up. There is a new order and these honky white heterosexual motherfuckers are going to pay.
Antigone made of herself a sacrifice, Rose said. There must be a sacrifice, Rose said, To restore order (295-6).
Indeed, a sacrifice is given.
As I said earlier, this is not a mere story; it is epic. Spanbauer creates vivid and realistic characters that are alive, they love, suffer and meditate on the relationship between all these elements. The novel both incorporates the characteristics of Greek myth and tragedy and places these elements in new and startling contexts. He reminds us of the relationships between free will, destiny, and the role we have in (re-)creating ourselves anew. He also explores the nature of evil and finds that it lives not outside of us but within, buried deep in the human heart. It flourishes in the dark spaces where communitas and caritas have been given over to moral certitude and petty, small-mindedness. Ultimately, this novel transcends classifications of being a queer novel or novel about AIDS. It is not about sex and gender. It is about the universal condition: the human condition. As such, it succeeds marvelously.